Practice review of the year

With the help of a select band of judges, Graham Hopkins presents his personal take on the practice highlights of the year, while regular contributors nominate their favourite moments

White collar crime award
Our judges are a broad church but they were unanimous: our winner is the Archbishop of Westminster and head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. He was perhaps caught between the devil and deep blue sea after complaining in October about the “unwarranted” and “deeply prejudiced” BBC1 Panorama documentary “Sex Crimes and the Vatican”, which accused the Pope of covering up child abuse by priests. The programme claimed that in 2001, the then future pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issued “a secret Vatican edict” to instruct the world’s Catholic bishops to put the interests of the Church before the safety of children.

However, as our judges recalled, His Eminence’s own track record is not quite infallible. As Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, he discovered in 1981 that one of his priests, Father Michael Hill, was a paedophile. Instead of informing the police, he moved Hill to the chaplaincy at Gatwick Airport, believing Hill would no longer be a danger to children because he had begged forgiveness. However, in 1997, Hill was convicted of sex attacks against nine children. After serving three years, he was then given another sentence of five years for confessing further assaults on three more boys aged 10-14, one of whom used a wheelchair. Allegations later surfaced against eight other Catholic priests in the Cardinal’s former diocese.

The Shane Warne spin of the year
This is a two-way tie but for the same “self-congratulatory” organisation (its annual report on itself declared its work for the year as “a job well done”). Step forward the Commission for Social Care Inspection, which, as expected, has swept the board at this year’s Practice Awards.

It embarked on an expensive consultation exercise over the frequency of inspections (twice a year) of care homes, the result of which revealed an overwhelming response from the public for more annual inspections. Taking this on board, the CSCI announced its plans to reduce the number of annual inspections.

What the non-professional public didn’t understand was that fewer inspections will improve things, allowing CSCI “to focus more on poor performing services”, so said the then chief inspector David Behan.

“What rot,” declares a judge. “Any poorly performing home would have (or at least should have) been visited more often anyway. It’s a dressed-up money-saving wheeze.”

CSCI’s second winning piece of spin related to the publication of the report into the year’s biggest social care story – the Cornwall scandal. CSCI’s website trumpeted: “Investigation finds abuse”. Says one judge: “This was a tad misleading. This investigation didn’t ‘find’ abuse: it was already there and known about – and for some time. This investigation merely and belatedly ‘confirmed’ the abuse.” Another agrees: “The headline wanted us to believe that CSCI somehow rode into Dodge City (well Falmouth) and cleaned the whole goddam place up. They didn’t. At the time of the abuse, their local inspectors didn’t even know what was going on.”

The festive crisp and even award
Judges involved with the NHS voted unanimously for the departure of Sir Nigel Crisp and his subsequent offer of an “African consultancy” to sort out the continent’s health service (!). “Perhaps they should be grateful that he wasn’t sorting out their social care too,” as one judge noted.

The “I fought the law” award
With Paul Snell taking over as chief inspector from David Behan, it was left to Mike Rourke in September to slide into Snell’s discarded shoes as business director of inspection, regulation and review (an odd title since “inspection” is part of “regulation”). Upon his appointment, Rourke described it as “a privilege to lead the directorate in addressing the new challenges and opportunities we face”. Well, if any of those challenges are legal – the appointment could be a shrewd one.

One judge recalled a conference in October 2004 where a speaker told delegates not to worry unduly about the need to make significant changes to their social services complaints work.

“But it is the law,” gasped a delegate. “Oh, we can get around that,” shrugged the speaker. Who was he? Why, Mike Rourke of the CSCI!

Health and social care partnership of the year
Published in October, the long-awaited green paper, Care Matters, commendably aims to transform the lives of children and young people in care. One idea is to set up independent social work practices “similar to a GP practice”.

“Never mind improved pay or status or manageable workloads, this is exactly what we social workers have been demanding for decades,” smirks one of our judges. Indeed another already admits to having begun advertising for a patronising receptionist. “If a young person comes to you with a problem, we can now tell them it’s a virus and adopt the GPs’ favoured WAS (wait and see) approach,” she says. “Then come Friday afternoon – it’s off to the golf course. That’s what it is all about; that’s what we came into social work for.”

Fundraiser of the year
Bouncing his rivals into oblivion is Johnny Ball (ex-TV presenter and more importantly father of Zoe) who in October presented a fundraising speech on behalf of Barnardo’s at a Rotarian conference in Bournemouth.

Ball announced that the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill “to introduce even more checks on volunteers working with children” was full of “paranoia”, and “draconian” and “like MI5”. “They stop people volunteering for scouts and brownies.

These checks would not have stopped the Soham murders – that was an act of evil intent.”

The checks might well have prevented the murders, of course, as different authorities might not have made the vetting errors that led to Ian Huntley getting his job in the first place.

But Ball was representing Barnardo’s. The charity’s website says its recruitment and selection process “is rigorous and  incorporates a number of checks” to “ensure we safeguard children and young people.” Ball may be right that the Bill will deter some people from volunteering but how many cases of potential abuse might it prevent? Think of a number, Johnny.

Joined-up thinking of the year
In August, CSCI opened its consultation on how to best introduce star ratings for care homes. “Millions of people in England will soon have a better way of judging the quality of care services they or their relatives and friends rely on,” trumpeted the press release. So, star ratings are the future. And then, in October, the government announced that star ratings for adult social care will be scrapped in 2009 in an overhaul of the inspection of councils. So, star ratings are washed up.

That’s cleared that up then.

My moment of the year
“The unambiguous support of the education secretary for the Care Matters green paper; it was genuine and rooted in understanding of complex issues.”
Andrew Cozens, strategic adviser for children, adults and health services, IDeA

“For me the proposal with the greatest potential for impact on the future of the sector is the quality rating system for care homes. It will happen and it should assist people to understand how care services are evaluated but there will be a lot of negotiation to get it right.”
Des Kelly, executive director, National Care Forum

“The government abandoning the previous version of the Mental Health Bill; and on a lighter note – me standing in front of a giant bottle of claret (my favourite drink) to talk about alcohol and mental health on Channel Five. Don’t do as I do, do as I tell you!”
Andrew McCulloch, chief executive, Mental Health Foundation

“In November, the absence from the Queen’s Speech of the proposed merger of CSCI and the Healthcare Commission, 
generally deplored in social service circles, revealed it had been put off by at least a year. A few days later, the Department of Health launched yet another consultation on the subject, the fore-runner, we must hope, to the final burial of a ridiculous Treasury-led plan.”
Jef Smith, consultant, writer and trainer

“On the gulp/horror front: hearing an MP on Radio 4 explaining that we couldn’t expect “the English” to work in abattoirs or care homes like immigrant or foreign workers. Good moment: Wanless!”
Judy Downey, chair, Relatives and Residents Association

This article appeared in the 14 December issue under the headline “Gongs & Gaffes”

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